I have my books, and my poetry to protect me…

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A few years ago a very good friend of mine and I decided that things were getting a little narky and we needed to try and focus on good stuff. Some of this meant holding back when the opportunity came for getting annoyed and to make sarcastic comments, some of it meant things like encouraging people to look back before going home each day and find something to make them smile. It sounds a bit trite but we were committed to it and named it CPD – Colin’s Positivity Drive!

This weekend someone I’ve known on twitter for a while but not met until this point said they’d seen me getting frustrated and that I should avoid getting dragged down. She had a point and as such here’s step number one in CPD Mk2.

On Saturday I was one of over 200 people that went to TLT13 in Southampton. The day was full of people sharing ideas and strategies for classrooms ranging from finding the Maths in painting and decorating to using photos of tigers and scared boyband looking lads to kick off questioning and speaking and listening activities which are key to developing literacy.

These were people who, some after momentous journeys, had spent a Saturday in what was for most the seventh week of an eight week half term exchanging and exploring pedagogical ideas with absolute commitment and enthusiasm from the kick off with Jamie ‘swearbox’ Portman through to the end when David Doherty rounded things off. Nobody came for anything other than to share or pick up ideas and nobody asked anything in return- not even Dave Fawcett and Jenn Ludgate who must have put in enough hours to double their workload for the term so far getting it all going. 

It’s this dedication that was in my mind today when I was discussing where the profession goes next. Yep, itwas one of those conversations. You know the sort where we all get very grandiose and self important about a spectacular theory we have about what’s wrong and how it could be solved if only everyone would listen to me.

But this one was different. I don’t have a grand theory, I don’t have a manifesto or a plan about how we should muster our troops and march on anywhere. Anywhere other than our classrooms that is.

When I’ve seen people express a low morale or anxiety about where it’s all going my response has tended to be one where I encourage people to get in their classrooms, shut the door and teach their kids – obviously in the spirit of sharing and collaboration an open door is a better approach but it doesn’t work as well as part of the message. My main point is that teaching is teaching and the basic beauty of what goes on when a group of young people are working with a dedicated teacher who genuinely cares about them and their successes should be unaffected by whatever government initiative or prejudice comes and goes. It should be a place where we can have sanctuary from all of that and get on with what we enjoy and what we signed up for.

This is why people were in Southampton on Saturday. While there were inevitable references to the two Michaels and why we despise the pair of them, and while some tweets on the day included #teacherROAR and asked ‘are you listening Mr Gove?’ I don’t think that’s the reason people went. We could all have a pop at those in power without making the trek or, as it seems some people have done, pen another blog about why it’s all someone else’s fault and ‘I’m jolly good don’t you know’ without making the effort to get together. Yes it was a choice and there was no need for anyone to attend that didn’t want to but people did, and they did I think because they wanted to do better in their classrooms and their schools and for no more complicated – or less vital and important – reason than that.

And it’s also where I think we should concentrate our efforts. In the last few weeks in our schools we have had to inform our Year 11 students about early entry, or rather the fact that it won’t be happening for a lot of them, earlier this term we had to let them know that all of the work they did for speaking and listening won’t have the direct impact on their results that we thought it would, previous to that we had students who had left schools back in to teach them extra English to try and get them prepared for another English exam to make up for the AQA mess. All of these are external things that we in schools had to or are having to make up for. They also share a common factor in that they make us feel powerless and frustrated. 

But we’re not powerless. We may feel powerless about influencing policy or in trying to find an exam board that is free of influence, we may feel powerless when inspection frameworks change and we suddenly find that for behaviour to be above Requires Improvement it’s not enough for students to attend, behave well and develop caring and supportive attitudes to each other unless they have a thirst for learning as well. We may feel powerless when the same changes mean a report that meant one grade before the summer means something different as of September 1st.

I believe though that it’s a more this feeling of powerlessness than any real situation that will hold us back. Yes things are hard, bloody hard, and it looks like we will never know where the next sideswipe will come from but we should never forget where are real sphere of influence is and it’s here where we can, to coin a phrase, make a difference.

Let’s make a decision as a profession to do what we signed up for and teach. Let’s not allow ourselves to have that power and that influence taken away from us. If the C/D borderline is going to move, let’s move the kids further forward. One of the things I heard at the weekend that struck a chord, among so many others, was ‘I don’t do differentiation, I teach everyone to get the best.’ If we want to convince parents to be on our side then let’s ensure their kids are getting the best, if we want our students to work with us then let’s show them a profession dedicated to them and getting them the best. If we want to beat exam board changes and entry policies then make the students bulletproof to them by raising our expectations and their achievements so the goalpost movers have little impact.

If we want to stick two fingers up at inspectors or secretaries of state let’s make every lesson so mindblowing that there’s nothing to find fault with and have schools with results at such a high level that noone can do anything other than recognise and praise the success.

In 15 years I’ve seen students assessed by levels and grades, through SATS and GCSEs, A Levels and AS/A2 levels, have prepared students for terminal exams and portfolios and combinations of both across a range of subjects with a range of assessment demands and come the end and they all did pretty well. While all of the changes have been going on my teaching (while I hope it improved along the way) hasn’t really changed that much, primarily because I focused on teaching the subject first and worried about how it was assessed later. Students around the country are now anxious and understandably so, because they’ve been working towards a November deadline that looks like not coming. Their preparation, their teaching and their investment have been structured around the exam. An exam they knew was going to come, and for a large number of them was going to define next steps, for a long, long time. They know it because their teachers told them so, and their teachers told them so because this was at the heart of their planning. Not teaching Maths, not enjoying their time in the classroom but preparing for an exam. And it’s not the teachers’ fault. What do we expect in a system structured around the end result?

Maybe then we need to look for a different way to get there, or rather reclaim the way to get there. A headteacher I have admired for a very long time once told me that we can see schools as two tracks running parallel. One is about education and the other is about assessment and we should focus on the first and build understanding and the attributes, knowledge and skills that our students need to lead successful and prosperous lives before we switch the points and get them across on to the other track when we need to and prepare them to use what they have to get through the final assessment – whatever shape the hole in the wall coming towards them is this time.

And let’s not kid ourselves that all of the problem is external. I’ve vented (rambled on about) my frustrations with the negative voices within our own professions before and on Saturday Jamie Portman’s introduction spoke to those teachers who want to take things forward and change schools and warned them of those in the staffroom and the wider education world who would sit and sneer and demoralise and at times these voices will be sapping our confidence as much as any ‘leaked’ story in The Telegraph. It’s my belief that a lot of this is satisfying their own need for everyone to agree it’s all awful in order to avoid being part of making it better but I’m more than happy to be proved wrong on this if these guys want to get on board and be part of it.

So let’s reclaim the agenda. Let’s take the battle back to our turf and let’s not let anyone distract us so much with stuff we feel we can’t influence that we end up convincing ourselves we don’t have power over the stuff that we can. 

Lots of Love

Colin

Were you looking for a job and then you found a job? Well heaven knows …

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This week I’ve seen the Rosenthal study on teacher expectancy crop up twice – it’s been an exciting week you can tell made all the more buzzing by seeing surds* enter my so far surd free life twice as well. Now, the three people that read this waffle on a regular basis (cheers Mum, Pete and the anonymous wanderer from the staffroom) will know that this is something I’m quite into. I’ve written before in my exhausting back catalogue of four posts that I feel that motivation and high expectations can make a massive difference to student self perception and success and that we should all work to try and create a state of high expectation, confidence and challenge in our classrooms and schools.

It struck me though, during a discussion about it being difficult to praise and motivate students in a profession that feels under constant attack and with such incredible goal post changing even the inimitable combination of Bergkamp and Henry would struggle with, that perhaps we don’t have the same expectancy of each other – or rather that it’s in some way distasteful or at its best naive to want to do well as a teacher. With all of the externals that seem to be trying to bring us down we surely don’t need anyone on the inside adding to it?

I’ve had my worries – and a few pops – about the retweeting of congratulatory messages etc and the mutual backslapping that goes on online but this isn’t what I’m referring to. I remember reading in a Media Studies textbook (real teachers look away now) that the adoration of the monarchy in Great Britain was part of the general public’s reticence to move forward into real self government and democracy. It wasn’t so much we liked or valued the institution we just weren’t sure what we’d do with out it. If it was to go we might have to stand up and be counted ourselves and with the status quo removed the destabilising nature of the event would be too much to handle and prevent us from taking the positive actions that might come as result of the new possibilities.

This links for me to the idea of the ‘stroke’ theory of recognition. This theory suggests that when we are in a relationship the exchanges between us (physical, verbal, psychological) are strokes which can be positive or negative but regardless of their nature defines the positions we hold in the relationship. At its most serious it can be seen as the reason why people in abusive relationships remain where they are. It’s horrific and both emotionally and physically dangerous to stay but the parameters are defined the unknown is more terrifying than the abuse that is being faced.

In the classroom we refer to it as the comfort zone more often than not and we encourage students to move out of theirs where possible to become more independent and develop as learners rather than pales to be filled. We also encourage teachers to try new ideas and not to be overly concerned when it all falls apart first time as that’s part of the process – there’s a hump backed bridge and as we try and get ourselves and our students over it it will be scary and cause anxiety but once we get to the other side we can all get stuck in to the fresh green grass.

When I kicked off the blog writing nonsense it was in response to David Didau and his post about Twitter. In our exchanges I suggested that it was all vey well for the likes of David who is big enough to look after himself when he has negative comments thrust his way but what about those new to the forum who were finding their feet and didn’t quite have the self assurance to publish and be damned. Sometimes I feel that the worst of this is seen in our schools and staffrooms and this for me is where the expectancy issue arises.

As SMT I’ve always assumed it goes with the job description for people to want to have a dig. It’s somewhere in everyone’s nature to criticise management in any walk of life or workplace and when you are making decisions that will have a spread of positive and negative implications depending on people’s point of view you’re bound to put noses out of joint from time to time, even when your motivation is (I promise) at the end of the day to try and get what’s best for the students. Why go to work in a school otherwise? But it’s when it seems that people are having a dig at others for just trying to do the best that they can that I get more than a bit frustrated. 

While being on the receiving end of a judgement of Requires Improvement is no happy place to be and the language may be unnecessarily punitive in its tone it is for me much better than Satisfactory in terms of teaching. Teachers have said previously that satisfactory means good enough, so if they’re good enough than that’ll do. Would you be happy with someone having a ‘that’ll do’ approach to any aspect of your life? Doctors? Mechanics? Pilots? I wouldn’t even be happy to watch a football team take that attitude into a League Cup game against a lower league side on a crappy Wednesday in Bradford so it’s infuriating to hear it said about education.

Happily this sentiment seems to be a thing of the past. Most people now want to be good or better and while the RI tag might be a useful way to avoid such complacency (laziness?) I am confident that this comes more from professionalism and a commitment to see the students succeed. Why then do those who want to do well, and want to help others do well suffer from the jibes and comments? What drives teachers to look at another teacher who is doing well in their classroom and for their students and rather than want to do as well and be part of the success, instead be part of that sniggering group we tried to eradicate when we wanted to celebrate success amongst students?

For some people I’m sure that what they see in others is something that they wouldn’t be comfortable with, it’s too far from their comfort zone and the strokes are one’s they’re unfamiliar with. These people can have a massively emotional reaction and appear to be very negative in their outlook and response but they’re not. They’re decent people who see these steps as destablising. They like what they’ve got and feel safe with it. On the path to accepting change emotional responses are fairly early steps and followed swiftly with lots of logical arguments but these guys are already on the way. It will take time, support and knowing that there will be challenges on the way but you can take those risks and we’ll be here with you which will help these people to move on. It’ll take time but rushing won’t help. And anyway they may well have another route that can work so why not allow them to explore that and see if there’s stuff there that can help others as well?

For others though, and these are the ones that I can’t understand, it seems it’s just easier to sit back and snipe, to criticise rather than contribute, not to want to be part of the shared success of a school, who would it seems enjoy a colleague feeling intimidated to share practice and want to work with others to help teachers and students do well as it satisfies some bizarre need that I just can’t understand. It’s almost as if people are ashamed to want to do well, or it’s in some way embarrassing to want to be good at your job. 

As I’ve mentioned there are some massive egos around (you know, like people writing blogs as if they have something worth groundbreaking to say) and as a teacher on Fast Track I saw plenty of these. I say on Fast Track rather than Fast Track teacher as I’m not sure we should be defined by a programme or route (Teachfirst is perhaps doing its people the same disservice – gulp!) and having come to it in my fourth or fifth year of teaching I may have been more resistant to the hype than others, and there was plenty of it. There were some excellent people there and I rate some of them as some of the best people I’ve met or worked with but also people like the NQT who worked for a Head I know who was adamant he should be joining SMT meetings ‘because he was Fast Track’ despite not managing to do his bus duty. 

We all know the adage that ‘self promotion is no recommendation’ but I’m not talking about people who are fueled by ego. These are regular teachers who are doing really well and rather than close the door and add it to their CVs are out there sharing what they’re doing and inviting others to see if there’s anything they might be able to use. If you know it all then fine, how about sharing something yourself? If you don’t then how about listening and at least acknowledging what others are trying to do? It’d be great if you could be part of something but if you can’t then how about taking the advice my dear old mum never gave – If you haven’t got anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all. It’s a probably a pretty sad place to be but at least the rest of us can get on and see if we can’t help other teachers develop what they do and get more satisfaction out of a tough job and some kids get a decent start in a difficult world. And maybe it’s worth reflecting on who might be putting their interests before the interests of the game.

 

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtWMVUhFIPU

 

 

 

Lots of Love 

 

Colin

 

*http://www.mathcentre.ac.uk/resources/uploaded/mc-ty-surds-2009-1.pdf

What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?

This evening I’ve read about the speech Michael Wilshaw gave to independent heads and seen it referred to as fabulous (although not had this verdict elaborated on) and alternated between yawning through a Man Utd game and watching how Tarquin has been getting on at Harrow in the Sky documentary – you know, the one with the god awful jump cutting and music.

Watching it and reflecting on my own experiences I’m not entirely sure what it is that Wilshaw has it quite right about partnerships with independent schools. How would we translate beaks and Founders Day into a family who because of shift work or where kids are young carers haven’t sat and eaten a meal together for weeks or maybe months on end? How do we use the expertise of schools with ‘families’ across the world who offer work experience in offices in Beijing or Bangkok to aid students who have spent two weeks wiping tables in cafes in town or feeding wildfowl at a petting zoo having walked miles to get there?

I’m not intending to deride or even compare the two worlds but to a huge degree they are worlds apart. I wrote yesterday of how aspiration and high expectations are an issue for us in terms of student performance and here are kids with it in spades. It’s where we get this idea of public school arrogance – but is it a surprise when everyone around you is telling you just how great you can be and how well you can do?

My own experience came as a scholarship boy (Yep I’m not only SMT but also one of those arrogant public school boys -and you thought yesterday’s blog contained a confession!) in a very successful independent school. So successful that the chap you see welcoming all of the old Harrovians’ last gig was as head honcho there. Aside from a few issues in the first year where I was a Norfolk boy with a Norfolk accent quite clearly told “ We don’t talk like that here Goffin” by some of the less welcoming lads who seemed to question my credentials for being there I had a fantastic time. I think the support of my parents which helped me sustain my academic success – I had to or I’d be out – gave me some credibility but the school was a brilliant environment to develop as a rounded individual and I had some fantastic teachers and superb friends without who I wouldn’t be who I am now. Blame them!

So if it was all so rosy what’s the beef Goffin? Well despite my own experience being positive and the elitist accusations thrown at public schools not being something I really saw while I was there what I’ve seen on returning for dinners in the school refectory has been a different picture. At it’s simplest it’s been things like feeling I should have a more significant answer than teacher when asked what I do (In a school dinner hall of all places), or being made to look idiotic when I didn’t know the rules for the drinking games, or not recognising which Cambridge college the grace was from. 

Worse than that though was a speech by the Second Master where he went through the opening questions from a Leisure and Tourism paper laughing at the questions, the schools that would be teaching these courses and the ridiculous students who would be taking them and the silly lives they must lead. I’m perhaps being a little creative with the last point but that’s how I took it as a teacher that works with these kids and has always seen the huge impact that vocational education can have.

It was a cheap shot and it was playing to the gallery. A gallery of old boys who, rather like we saw Jim Hawkins do tonight, might well offer placements, internships or sponsorships to students or the school so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was insulted. Insulted that a school I believed in and one that I felt meant something to me was becoming exactly the sort of stereotype that I always had thrown at me when people found out where I was educated. Insulted that someone who should know damn well that all exam papers start off with simple questions to settle students’ nerves was being willfully ignorant of this to get a laugh and ingratiate himself to others who may have had excuses for such ignorance. But most insulted of all that someone who had apparently chosen to follow a career in education where his sole aim should be helping students to succeed was ridiculing a form of education for no reason other than it wasn’t the one he was working in. I should add here that a number of the staff I admired most and that were ones who are the reason why I do what I do expressed just as much dislike for these comments as I did albeit expressing such thoughts in politer terms than I used. You can, it would appear, take the boy out of Yarmouth…

But insulted as I was I maybe, like I say, I shouldn’t have been surprised. And not just because all public schools are full of toffs and that’s the way it is (remember I’m a product of one) but because it was just as I said – a different educational world and a different form of school.

And this is why much as I hear Wilshaw’s accusation of preferring to educate “those whose parents have deep pockets” and think back to that evening I think his standpoint that the help goes in one direction is misguided. It’s not simple enough to say that because the best results come from the independent sector that the education or school leadership in this sector is the best. Neither is it simple enough to write off what is achieved in public schools by saying they have selective entry so are merely an example of what goes in must come out. Admittedly I’m not sure value added is a major feature of their self evaluation and I’ve covered motivation and parental support and interest already, but I remember talking to the head of my old school (this one hasn’t been on telly lately as far as I know) a little while into my career and discussing that they don’t have to worry about ‘C’ or above but they certainly do have to ensure A and A* as a measure.

So how can we work together? Well for starters let’s not make it a power based relationship with one going cap in hand for donations from the other. Let’s get away from it being a wealth or a resourcing issue.Let’s get away from the notion that the state system is automatically seen as deficient and let’s get back to basics.

Let’s level the playing field and talk about good school leadership and how we make this work in whatever context we are in without belittling that context, let’s talk about good relationships and good teaching and learning whether we are teaching Latin or Health and Social Care and let’s let teachers talk to teachers about how we can do the best for our kids whether they have estate managers or live in a semi on an estate – didn’t do me any harm.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0CYJNw9YJQ

 

Lots of Love

 

Colin

Lord, give me grace and dancing feet. Let me outshine the moon

While I was delivering TEEP training a while ago someone came into the room I was working in and asked about the impact that the programme has. I explained how I’d seen it work to improve teachers in my own school as well as schools where it had helped with whole school improvement. The teacher replied. “Yes. But will it work with our sort of kids?”

 I’m sure she was asking the question based on her own experiences and wondering whether or not it was easier in schools where there was already a good work ethic, or where students were motivated and keen to do well but it brought to mind a comment someone made when I was training staff in my own school and was asked whether this will work with “Lowestoft children.”

Bearing in mind this was the last two days of the summer holiday and this was a member of staff yet to meet or work with the students in my school and I was in my eleventh of twelfth year working with what I’d aways found to be great kids I had to work hard not to leap down his throat! Wanting to be supportive of new colleagues I have to say I did fairly well but I think it was clear how outrageous a comment I thought this was.

Having shared these comments with a fellow trainer last week our discussion moved on to aspiration and expectation and whether or not we were creating enough of this among our students.

A few years ago we had a group of girls who were referred to as “the Saturn girls.” Our houses are named after planets and despite only one or two of these twelve or so students being in the house the name stuck. These were girls who you’d recognise from either of the “Educating..” programmes as being a bit mouthy, going round in a group, worrying about everything outside of school, little inside and generally driving their teachers mad. But they were good kids. Myself and Giles Barrow – a man for whom the title consultant is so ridiculous in comparison to what he offers schools, students and teachers it’s untrue – sat down with these girls to see what made them tick. In conversation it became clear that these kids had made quite a conscious decision about school and what it had to offer them. 

There was little chance of worthwhile employment as young women in the area so for some their best prospect was marriage, for others there were low level jobs available or perhaps college courses with low level entry requirements. Any or all of these destinations required little by way of qualifications so these girls had to find some value in their time at school so socialising was as good a way as any to spend it while they waited for the end of Year 11. It was a sad state of affairs but what was equally worrying was that here they were about half way through their final year and up until this point nobody had had this conversation with them. They had been written off so wrote themselves off too and everyone carried on – they confirmed everyone’s expectations as nobody had much expectation for them.

I’m pleased to say that the majority of these girls did get stuck in and were spurred on to look at college courses and careers and they did build their aspirations to something more than finding a nice man to look after them. Indeed these girls who knew they would have to fight for themselves did more to push themselves on than some others from more comfortable backgrounds who settled with ‘ok’ grades as they’d been looked after up until this point so would be ok from now on as well.

The issue raised its head again for me though while interviewing the current Year 11 about how they were getting on and their next steps. We were working on the simple premise of seeing where students are meeting targets or otherwise and reasons why or why not. But something more came out of it. 

During the interviews I saw student after student who were meeting their target grades and being quite happy with this. This was also echoed by teachers who hadn’t raised concerns over these students or suggested any more needed to be done. My alarm bells rang because these were students who we were discussing their last reports with, the reports from May last year, who had already hit these target grades and rather than pushing forward were quite content. Once I and others discussed the notion of these not being targets but minimum expectations and then discussing where they might go next the eyes of these kids lit up. Once again it was a conversation that clearly nobody had had with them previously.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of our teachers. They have been working as I’m sure many teachers have to ensure they were getting students past the ‘C’ grade which we have enshrined as a gold standard or most recently working to ensure students are making appropriate progress and these guys were clearly doing it. But just think what they could have done – or rather what they will do now we have the chance to change minds and refocus expectations. The way in which we are forced to work means teachers and students have their aspirations held back because of having to play safe and get the expected grades rather than having the confidence to experiment and explore more creative teaching and push for the very best grades. I posted yesterday on early entry and won’t go over those arguments but will add a supplemental comment linked to this issue as teachers in our school and I’m sure others are using early entry not as gaming or cheating but to ensure a safety net for students so they don’t fall down. Unfortunately the knock on effect of this is teachers potentially trying to cover course content in time for a November entry and moving through things so quickly that the learning may be sacrificed and the whole process becomes self defeating – regardless of whether it counts for league tables or not. It’s no wonder that in this environment staff and students are settling rather than pushing and both parties are working together not to achieve the very best but in a conspiracy of apathy.

It’s vital that we help our students to develop aspiration and confidence to be the very best that they can be and crucial that we give our teachers the freedom and belief that they should have the highest expectations for their students and that they have the skills to work with their classes to reach these heights. It’s not about pressure and fear of failure, it’s about challenge, expectations and allowing everyone to know that they are the greatest.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzBp12TqAZs

 

Lots of Love

 

Colin